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When Werner Herzog was still a teenager, he found himself living in an apartment with several other boarders -- one of them a maniacal, uncontrollable actor named Klaus Kinski. Fifteen years later, he cast Kinski as the lead in Aguirre, Wrath of God, the German director's first (relatively) big-budget film ($370,000 dollars).
The tale of a crazed conquistador trying to conquer the Americas earned both director and star international reputations. They ended up making a total of five films together -- Aguirre (1972), Woyzeck (1979), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo(1982), and Slave Coast (1988). The first four are among the best of Herzog's 15 or so fictional features, and certainly the best of Kinski's nearly 150 films. My Best Fiend is Herzog's documentary portrait of Kinski, who died in 1991. Without adhering strictly to chronological order, it traces their stormy -- to put it mildly -- relationship, both personal and professional.
Woody Allen spent much of the '90s looking at the quandary of artists who are brilliant professionally and horrible personally, yet he never conceived of a character as monstrous as Kinski. And for a good reason: Audiences wouldn't accept that anyone would submit to working with such a hideous person. Yet in the real world, where narrative credibility isn't an issue, people did work with Kinski, though few as often as Herzog. The actor is presented as a raving loon, egocentric to the point of cruelty, completely emotionally out of control, in all ways reprehensible. (At one point, he actually shoots and wounds one of the extras after hours for no particular reason.) And at moments one also gets hints that Herzog could tolerate him because Herzog himself was just barely more human.
The two don't merely squabble: At various points they each seriously plot the murder of the other.
Somehow, despite all this tension -- or perhaps because of it -- they produced some extraordinary work.
Herzog narrates the film -- instead of subtitles, the German dialog is translated in voiceover -- and interviews various of his former associates, including actresses Claudia Cardinale and Eva Mattes (the latter he describes as "the only woman who had anything good to say about Kinski"). Even as we are appalled by the behavior of both men, it is hard not to reflect on the poignant contrast between the intense young Herzog of the archival, on-location footage and the now middle-aged director who can no longer apparently get backing for major features. It is impossible to picture the latter having the energy or enthusiasm to entertain the obsessive visions that drove his early career and led to his best work.
The movie has wonderful excerpts from the duo's films, as well as footage from Les Blank's making-of-Fitzcarraldo documentary, Burden of Dreams. But, no matter how brilliant the excerpts, the overall impression My Best Fiend creates is that, contrary to Herzog's claims, even the possibility of making great art would not justify exposing oneself to such a vile human being.
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